Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
You have probably heard the Carolina chickadee’s song – “chickadee-dee-dee” – if you have a birdfeeder or trees in your yard or you have woods near your home. We have two pairs that consistently enjoy the food I put out for the birds on fence posts separating our farm from the neighboring farm to the west.
The Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis), which is in the same family as the Tufted Titmouse (Paridae), is widespread in Virginia and the most common chickadee in the state. Their preferred habitats include mixed and deciduous woods, river groves, shade trees and well-wooded suburbs. Chickadees are one of the first birds to use a newly placed bird feeder. They visit for sunflower seeds, peanut chips and suet. The chickadee will fly to the feeder, grab a single seed, carry it to a branch and hold the seed down with its feet. It hammers the shell open to get the meat inside. It then quickly returns to the feeder to get another seed. Their diet is mostly insects and spiders but they also eat seeds and berries, especially in the winter. Their acrobatic feeding habits are a delight to watch: they hang upside down and tilt their head and body up to reach insects on leaves and under tree bark. They sometimes take food while hovering and may fly out to catch insects in mid-air.
Chickadees can be attracted to your property by offering a nest box or nest tube with a 1-1/4 inch entrance opening. Despite their small size, they are relatively fearless and are one of the species of birds that will commonly try to drive away predators such as hawks, owls and snakes. Like the titmouse, however, they are very vulnerable to predation by outdoor cats.
The Carolina chickadee was among the birds named by John James Audubon when he was in South Carolina. The black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)) is very similar in appearance but less seen in our state. Where the two species’ range come into contact, the Carolina chickadee and the black-capped chickadee will occasionally hybridize. Hybrids can sing the songs of either species and might sing something that is a blend of the two songs.
A chickadee pair bond between a male and female can last for several years. During the winter chickadees band together in large flocks. The life span of a Carolina chickadee is 2-3 years. The longest-lived known was 10 years 11 months old and found in West Virginia in 1974.
Bluebird update: We have a pair of bluebirds that have built a nest in our second nest box – and this morning I counted 4 beautiful blue eggs. It is such a joy to offer a “home” for a bluebird family on our farm each year!
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